Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Added Head's-Up on the Holland Film

I realize that some of you don't live in New York City. (You poor lambs.) But that's no reason you shouldn't be able to see good movies. (Lots of of people in New York City don't see good movies, but that's their own fault.)

Joking aside, I was informed that Burning Bush (see below) is available for streaming on Fandor.This is another one of those art-film based sites that allows you to watch a very juicy catalog of films at your computer. You can even stream them to your television set (although I'm still trying to figure out how to do that myself). So wherever you are, you have no excuse for missing out on the Agnieszka Holland. Go to it -- you have been so ordered.

A Bush Still Burning

When her brilliant Shoah drama In Darkness was released theatrically in the U.S. a few years ago, Agnieszka Holland told Jewish Week, “Even the effect of a kitschy television series like Holocaust – it changed the vision of Americans and Germans on this subject. Perhaps for educational purposes even embellishment is better than complete silence.”

At the time, Holland was beginning work on a mini-series of her own for HBO Europe, a recounting of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Jan Palach, a Prague college student who immolated himself in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Holland was in Prague at the time studying film, became active in the protests despite being a Polish national, and even spent some time in jail. She brings the immediacy of the eyewitness to Burning Bush, the four-hour film that results.The film is having its theatrical release today at Film Forum.

Palach’s death set wheels turning throughout the subterranean worlds of Czech/Soviet communism, with pressure from Moscow and from anti-reform hardliners in Prague putting local police officials under the gun. At the same time, the heat would come down on the students who were organizing in support of the Prague Spring reformers and against the Soviet tanks in the streets. The match with which Palach incinerated himself burned a lot of other people almost as badly, including his apolitical mother and brother. When a prominent mid-level hardliner denounced Palach as a stooge for right-wing conspirators, they had the nerve to sue him for defamation. The lawsuit and its aftermath provide Holland with a compelling armature on which to examine the wide range of choices facing people in a police state. Brilliantly acted by a splendid ensemble cast of Czech veterans, this is the kind of project that lesser filmmakers would make into a stentorian marching song; in Holland’s hands, it is subtler and more profound.

 Burning Bush:  There's no dousing this flame

Burning Bush is almost as visually shadowy as In Darkness, but here the difficulties of vision become more metaphor than reality. Where the earlier work uses splashes of light to highlight the emotional barriers between the various Jewish families hiding from the Nazis, here there is an overall grayness that suggests a world of moral ambiguities in which one seldom has clear-cut choices as the pressure to conform and to collaborate becomes intense, even lethal. Experienced as a four-hour motion picture, the project is claustrophobically intense; as a three-part teleplay it might be less harrowing and therefore less effective.


 By purest happenstance -- which is the way these things usually happen, this weekend also marks the simultaneous openings of the Israel Film Center Festival, Kino! Festival of New German Films, and Nadav Lapid's wild-and-woolly feature Policeman.

Needless to say, your intrepid reporter was on the scene(s) and I can honestly say that this is a heck of a good week to be a film lover in New York City. If you want to read more, I suggest you should, you can find my Jewish Week story on these three events here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The one film you should see this year . . . .

I absolutely hate that kind of statement.

However, if someone asked you what to see this weekend, you can't do any better than Ida, the new film by Pawel Pawlikowski, which opens Friday in New York at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza. It will also be opening in LA and will have a national release shortly after. (If you aren't in NYC, you can find other theaters showing the film here.)

When it closed this year's New York Jewish Film Festival, I wrote the following:

Ida is Pawel Pawlikowski’s fifth feature. The Warsaw-born filmmaker made his previous films (and numerous television documentaries) in the UK, but for this latest work he went home for the first time in his career. Like his best-known early films, Last Resort and My Summer of Love Pawlikowski’s new work centers on the state of mind of a young woman faced with an unexpected fork in her personal road. Like the other two films, Ida draws us into the protagonist’s subjective world slowly, inexorably, with subtle modulations of tone achieved mainly through his rigorous visual style. Ida is a film whose power can be felt moment by moment — Pawlikowski’s control is that formidable — but it is the cumulative effect of its slow unwinding that gives the film an unholy force. To be blunt, it is a masterpiece, a work of concision, compression and restraint, great formal elegance and emotional acuity.

Ida is an austere work, filmed in starkly beautiful black and white, shot by Pawlikowski’s long-time cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski, with Lukasz Zal. The film was made in the old-fashioned 1:33-1 aspect ratio, creating an image that is almost a square and that looks awkwardly unfamiliar to contemporary audiences (although it stood filmmakers in good stead for most of the first sixty years of the medium’s history). We are in a convent, somewhere in Poland in 1962, and, enshrouded in a mist snow flurries, a group of nuns are slowly, somberly replacing a statue of Jesus.

Aunt Wanda and Anna/Ida 

One of those nuns, Sister Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), is a novitiate, shortly to take her vows; what she doesn’t know is that her only surviving relative, a distant aunt, is about to overturn all the certainties in her life by revealing that she was a hidden child named Ida Lebenstein, the Jewish daughter of a woman who died in the camps. Wanda, her aunt (Agata Kulesza), is a magistrate, at least superficially at ease in the middle ranks of the Communist regime; in reality, she is a self-loathing alcoholic with few certainties of her own. The pair will journey across rural Poland seeking the burial place of Anna/Ida’s mother, Wanda’s sister.

Although it partakes of some of the tropes of the road movie, Ida is no comedy-drama of mismatched partners redeeming one another. Filmed almost entirely with a stationary camera and off-center framing, the film skillfully disrupts the viewer’s equilibrium wrong-foots an audience skillfully, leaving us as devoid of certainty as the two women at its center. With its powerful sense of the spirituality behind ritual, Ida may be the most Bressonian film I’ve seen since the great Robert Bresson died, and it is without a doubt going to be one of the best films of 2014. 

My interview with Pawlikowski is now up on the Jewish Week website and, if I say so myself, it's worth a look. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

And more new movies . . . .

Two pieces in this week's Jewish Week, my second Tribeca festival round-up and a compelling third feature from the Argentine director (and novelist) Lucia Puenzo. I haven't seen her second film, The Fish Child, but on the strength of XYY and The German Doctor, I have to add her to the list of significant talents at work in the New Argentine Cinema right now. (And I really have to read her novels.)

And one more recommendation: last night the b.w. and I watched Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maier was a completely unknown street photographer who worked as a nanny in the Midwest in the 1950s-'80s. Maloof sort of stumbled across her work during an auction in the winter of 2007and became fascinated by the mystery of a supremely gifted photographer whose name was completely unknown. He posted some of the images he acquired on his blog and began filling in the blanks. The resulting film is occasionally frustrating (Do we really need yet another use of high-speed time-lapse footage to indicate the inexorable passage of time? Why do so many documentarians feel the need to

 Vivian Maier in a self-portrait

withhold identification of interview subjects in the first couple of reels of a feature?), but ultimately a rewarding, even charming piece of work. Maier's enormous output of images -- she seems to have been obsessive in her shooting practices -- is its own best defense, and her story is alternately disarming and alarming. It becomes clear in the second half of the film that for all her seeming benignity, she had some pretty pernicious inner demongs, but Maloof and Siskel have a pretty good grasp of tone so the film is neither condescending, pitying nor sentimental in its handling of the mysterious protagonist. Well worth a look, either in a theater or, as we saw it, VOD.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tribeca Journal . . .

I don't know whether the Tribeca Film Festival's documentary selections have generally made a stronger impression on me because there are more of them -- the ESPN sports sidebar tips the numerical balance and the qualitative one as well -- or because they are better than the narrative features, or because I usually end up writing about more of them. Perhaps it's because the fiction films tend to be heavily weighted towards American independent films at their most anodyne, maundering, meandering and maudlin family melodramas.

Whatever the reason, my Monday viewing seems to me typical. The only fiction feature I went to was Dito Montiel's Boulevard, and that provoked an unusual reaction in me: I walked out after 40 minutes. I almost never leave a film before the end credits and when I do it usually has more to do with the audience than the film. But there is no mistaking my reaction of Boulevard. It's one of those low-key, ostensibly sensitive portraits of middle-class angst with Robin Williams in his "tragically repressed" mode, all fluttering eyelids, quivering lips and when-is-the-explosion-going-to-come. Williams is a bank officer who has fallen into a very deep rut at home and at work. Then he almost inadvertently picks up a male hustler and is instantly infatuated to the point of becoming something of a stalker. By the end of the first half-hour I realized that there were only two or three ways this film could go and none of them were very interesting. Suddenly, after two-and-a-fraction films and four hours in the dark, it seemed like a good time for lunch. Unfair to Montiel no doubt, but that's festival life.

My reaction was probably colored by the fact that the film I had seen immediately prior to Boulevard was Maravilla, a first feature documentary by Juan Pablo Cadaveira that profiles the middleweight boxing champion Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez. As regular readers of this blog may recall, I am not only a former sportswriter but also a fairly serious boxing fan. Martinez is probably my single favorite active fighter in the world today, and I was looking forward to this film with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the result is a huge disappointment.

Damon Runyon once offered the scriptural advice, "The race is not always to the strong, nor the battle to the weak. But that's the way to bet." Unfortunately, fiction films about sports seem only to be interested in defying the smart money, focusing almost exclusively on the rise of the downtrodden. The result is that the genre is almost inevitably manipulative on a level so crude that the worst horror film director on the planet would be ashamed to put his name on the result. Ironically, the major exceptions are almost always boxing films. For better or worse, the sport is so identified with corruption and the underworld, and attracts such outsized, outrageous and deeply dangerous personalities -- think Jake LaMotta or Mike Tyson -- that the drama doesn't center on whether the "hero" can win but if he will be allowed to. The moral uncertainties that  rule the boxing film almost never come into play in fiction films about other sports and the result is that boxing movies tend to be about what is actually interesting in sports, the interplay of personalities in and out of competition. That is one of the key elements -- to my mind -- that made covering sports compelling. along with the socio-economic and political aspects of our games and what they tell us about our society, and what former major-league baseball player Ted Simmons elegantly called "the mental application of physical skills."

Sergio Martinez: A Marvel, sure, but who is he?

On paper, Maravilla should be about precisely those themes. Martinez grew up as one of the working poor of Quilmes, one of Buenos Aires's poorer barrios. The collapse of the Argentine economy forced him to move to Spain to move his boxing career forward. After considerable struggles in and out of the ring, he finally won the WBC middleweight title. But as is typical of the sport, he was stripped of the title by WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who essentially handed the strap to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., son of the Mexican boxing legend, and Sulaiman's godson. The WBC darted and dodged as capably as Willie Pep on one of his best nights but eventually had to give Martinez a chance to win his belt back from Chavez fils. It's not exactly a spoiler if I tell you he did so, and in fine style.

Maravilla wants to be every kind of sports movie, a fearless revelation of the corruption of the sport's sanctioning bodies, a profile of a singularly compelling man, a dramatic underdog story, a family drama and a spectacle. It only succeeds as the last, intermittently. Watching footage from his fights on a big screen is a joy seldom offered any more; why watch a fight on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater when you can see it in your own home? Even that pleasure is spoiled somewhat by Cadaveira's tinkering with the soundtrack of the fight footage so that every punch thuds, every whiff zips and the crowd noise ebbs and flows with the ostensible story line.

Martinez seems to be an intensely private guy, guarded and heavily armored. Given that both his manager and promoter were involved in the production of the film, it comes as no surprise that his privacy is never really challenged. Sulaiman, who died after the film was completed, sounds eminently reasonable if you're not actually listening, but the easy morality of the sanctioning bodies -- and the seeming complicity of the major cable networks in their nonsense -- are stated but not explored. What we are left with in the end is a compendium of visual cliches -- the ring being assembled in speedy time-lapse shots -- and a complicated, looping narrative structure that adds little but confusion. A painfully missed opportunity.

Fortunately, the day began and ended much more happily.

One would expect the director of the deft food doc King Corn to be appalled by the culture-bending spectacle of American adaptations of Chinese dishes that is the heart of The Search for General Tso, but Ian Cheney has a rich sense of humor, a thriving curiosity and a hunger for . . . well, in this case for General Tso's chicken. Me too, although given the regrettable coincidence of the screening of Cheney's film and the penultimate day of Pesakh, I had to settle for a cheese omelet at a nearby diner. (General Tso's chicken is lightly breaded, you know.)

Well, it turns out there was a General Tso, and he died nearly within living memory. A major figure in 19th century Chinese history, he came out of the Hunan region and was famous for never having lost a battle, which makes him the Perry Mason of war.

I'll have the brown rice, please

For reasons that the filmmakers and their many interviewees can only guess at, the dish which bears the general's famous name is one of the most ubiquitous in North America, found on just about any Chinese food menu on the continent. Yet until very recently, it was completely unknown in China. Cheney goes to Hunan and shows many locals photos of the insanely bright red concoction and they profess utter bafflement. When he finally tracks down the Hunanese chef who invented it, living and working in Taipei, he is utterly flummoxed by the alien sight; needless to say, it bears almost no resemblance to the recipe he devised.

Along the way, Cheney talks to a dazzling selection of restauranteurs, food historians and writers, Chinese food buffs and memorabilia collectors (who even knew there was such a thing?) and historians of the Chinese-American diaspora. The result is witty, smart and insightful, offering some useful lessons on issues of acculturation, assimilation and "authenticity." The film displays some minor lapses in judgment in its rather too-cute use of animation, but the overall effect is as delightful as, well, as a good plate of General Tso's chicken. Which is what I think I'll go have after I post this.

The nerdiness/neediness of engineering students is proverbial. On the evidence of Tonislav Hristov's film Love and Engineering every cliche you've ever heard about the males of the subspecies seems to be true. The Finland-based Bulgarian documentarian follows an affable but profoundly maladroit group of perpetual bachelors and their would-be mentor as they search for an algorithm or some other formula that will find them true love with the opposite sex. Or just sex with the opposite sex. Or a date. Anything.

Reservoir Engineers: Four guys getting their Tarantino on

Okay, I'm picking on these guys but the thing that struck me most forcefully while watching this charmingly goofy movie was how much these guys resembled the film students of whom I was one back in the mid-1970s. (The most significant difference between them and my classmates and me was that they are virtually guaranteed a sizeable living when they have their degrees.) For the most part, the quartet of losers are engagingly dopey and at least one, Todor, is a genuinely sweet guy whose helplessness in the face of his own emotions is really quite moving. Atanas, their instructor, has a certain clumsy self-knowledge that is refreshing: he tells them, "[The] fact [that I am married] is practical proof that an engineer can find a wife." Todor gets the last word, and it's a charming one: "Love is the algorithm," not the other way around.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Can't Show a Movie Without a Screen

As some of you may know, I've been a delighted supporter of the campaign to bring movies back to the United Palace, an astonishing 1930 movie theater up in Washington Heights, my neighborhood. We've succeeded in restoring film to the arts agenda in this unique venue and the next program on tap is a real NYC-set classic, the 1933 King Kong*, but the experience of seeing a film in this deco-and-Indian-and-Moorish phantasmagoria would be even more splendid if the theater's screen were replaced. Right now, we're looking at a 50-foot screen, which is pretty impressive, but the damned thing is an antique and desperately needs to be replaced.

If you'd like to pitch in, go here and make a donation. A gem like the United Palace needs a perfect setting.

* King Kong will be screening free on Sunday, April 27 at the United Palace (175th St. and Broadway, Manhattan); doors open at 4 p.m., live stage show at 5, screening at 5:30. Guests include Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author of the Tony- and Grammy-winning musical In The Heights, and John Landis, the director of Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places.

Cine-Journal, Mark II

For five years I turned out this blog, mostly on matters cinematic, on a somewhat regular basis. It wasn't always easy although it was frequently fun. It enabled me to experiment with different registers and tones in my writing, to plug my occasional public appearances, my books and the writings of my friends (including my esteemed and gifted wife) and my politics. Occasionally I would bend the self-imposed rules and comment on matters having nothing to do with the moving image.

For several months now, since October in fact, the blog has been dormant. As I have remarked in this space occasionally, when you are a professional writer -- someone who writes for a living, to pay the bills and feed the cat -- it is a pain in the ass to write for free. Of course, at least in theory, the blog leads to paying gigs or somehow creates other cash-earning opportunities. I have not found that to be the case, although I suppose it did alert some of you to the existence of my books, none of which is remotely about cinema.

After careful consideration, though, I have realized that writing the blog fills a few other needs, almost as important as the gaping holes in my bank account. It allows me to communicate more directly with similar-minded film people, to write on films that have no Jewish content, to write on films that are not necessarily playing in theaters right this instant, not to mention giving me a forum in which to comment on larger issues. When I'm not writing the blog, I have to pass up all of those. Obviously, if a paying gig came along that afforded similar opportunities, this space would suddenly be a blank once more. And if anyone reading this knows of such job, don't hesitate to tell me.

In the meantime, the Tribeca festival has begun once again and you can find my first Jewish Week piece on the event here.

As always, I reserve the right to talk sports, politics, literature or nonsense here. You can expect plenty of the last, I'm sure.

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...